In Times Of Severe Weather, Is New Englanders' Self-Reliance Virtue Or Vice?


Self-reliance, stoicism, pride in the ability to tolerate bad weather — all characteristics associated with New England culture.

But in Essex County — a part of the country with one of the highest numbers of declared weather disasters — old Yankee stoicism can prove a hindrance to good sense.

That’s among the reflections in a new report from New America, a D.C.-based nonprofit that ranked the North Shore county — with places like Tulsa County, Oklahoma and Walsh County, North Dakota — among 10 counties with the most reported disasters.

Sharon Burke is a senior adviser at the think tank who traveled to Essex County to interview people in the emergency management world.

“We definitely heard that narrative: that people in the Boston area, in Massachusetts, are very self-reliant and can take care of themselves,” Burke said. “That was a theme people felt was important to the local identity.”

Burke said self-reliant people can help emergency efforts by contributing more than they take. But their stubbornness could backfire when it’s really time to get out of Dodge.

“What we saw in Essex was there are some concerns about if there were a severe hurricane… would they [evacuate]?” she said.

An emergency worker interviewed in the report told a story about asking residents at what point they would evacuate.

“One guy said, ‘At a hurricane Cat-9,’” the report says. (Hurricanes only go up to category 5, with 157-mile-an-hour winds or greater.)

“So,” the report concludes, “the Massachusetts gentleman was telling the emergency management team that he would only evacuate if the hurricane were apocalyptic and literally off the scale.”

(Courtesy New America)
(Courtesy New America)

The report says 27 weather disasters have been declared in Essex County since 1972, from snow and ice storms to tropical storms and floods. The frequency is attributed to three factors: the county’s coastline, the rivers and tributaries of the Merrimack River Valley, and the county’s cold temps and heavy snow.

Kurt Schwartz, director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, said that though Essex County is more susceptible to events like nor’easters, he doesn’t see it as more disaster-prone than other parts of Massachusetts.

Schwartz pointed out that most of the disaster declarations in Essex are for relatively minor damage, totaling a minimum of about $2.7 million based on the county’s population. (Neighboring Middlesex County has a threshold almost twice as high, meaning that with the same amount of damage, Essex could qualify for relief while Middlesex does not.)

“These are not billion-dollar disasters,” Schwartz said.

“If you look at counties that have received the most disaster… dollars, I don’t think you’d find Essex County anywhere near the top of that kind of list.”

As for Massachusetts residents, Schwartz said they are “reasonably self-reliant,” but that emergency managers are always concerned about whether people will comply with evacuation orders.

The study’s authors conclude that the state government has built up trust that could come in handy during a hurricane.

“And maybe, that trust will overpower the recalcitrant Massachusetts mentality and help people evacuate to safety,” the study says. “But just in case, the folks at MEMA are ready with a ‘stoic New Englander’ discount factor.”



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